When I grew up, a complete meal consisted of meat, two limp vegetables and a generous amount of starch.
More often than not, everything was boiled: the meat, the green beans, the potatoes, the cauliflower, the rice or whatever was on the menu. Sauces were thick and sticky, thickened with flour and cheese, and inevitably pale in colour.
On a Sunday, a baked pudding (usually one named after a plant, or a famous sport star) served with thin custard, completed the bland affair.
It was all about the meat though. We always had a fridge full of meat. Lamb or beef – always from the farm – and in winter, all kinds of venison. Processing the fresh meat at home, was compulsory, it was almost deemed holy. Everyone, young and old, had their specific job: cutting, stuffing, spicing and packaging. There was a lot of bantering and laughing and occasionally a stern word when someone stepped out of line.
I am grateful for those times as it taught me basic recipes, skills and techniques. Not only that, but it also taught me that food, fun and family are entwined, and that good quality food often required hard work and a lot of sweat equity.
But as I grew up and moved further away from home, I realised that growing up the way we did, we missed out on a lot: new ingredients, new techniques, new flavours and in general a whole new way to think about food.
I first learned about lentils by reading the Bible.
Genesis 25:29-34 tells the story of Jacob’s famous lentil stew.
“When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished”… But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Back then my interest in the story was less about the stew and more about the “birthright”.
You see, for the first five years of my life, I had been an only child and I quite enjoyed the privileges that come with that. Then, seemingly, out of nowhere, a baby brother was foisted upon me, and most of my hitherto privileges disappeared overnight.
Thus, when the young Sunday school teacher with the bad skin and pale blue dress, shared the passage, I, for once, was interested in what the bible had to say. In my young disillusioned mind I discovered a possible way to get some of my lost privileges back.
If only I could find out what this “birthright” thing was. I mean if a starving man is willing to exchange it to save his life, it must be valuable and given that with the acquisition a baby brother, I was now the “first born” and thus the ‘owner’ of this birthright thing, it was only natural that someone has to cough up.
I asked my dad. Utter disappointment. No, the Bible said nothing about “sharing”, “brotherly love” or “equality”. I was having none of it. In the Bible the bribe worked.
So I tried a slightly different approach with mom. “Mom”. She mumbled something but did not look at me. She was busy … with HIM. Oh how I wished that needle would slip, miss the nappy and nip him. Right there … in the you-know-where.
“Maaaa!” This time I was going to be assertive and to the point. “I am willing to give you my birthright if you give him back”.
I folded my arms across my chest and waited. I knew one had to be patient with grown-ups, but really? It was such a good deal – way too generous, if you ask me.
“So, do we have a deal, or what?”
She burst out laughing and planted a kiss on my forehead. Then she put him back in his crib and disappeared down the corridor. I could hear her talking to dad in the kitchen, and then there was laughter. The type of laughter that makes you feel someone else is benevolent with your ignorance.
Oh well, can’t blame a man for trying, I suppose. But I did learn a few precious life lessons that day.
First, it is impossible to understand grown-ups, so do not even try.
Second, the Bible is not always right. If it was, Jacob would have kissed Esau on the forehead, and given him enough lentil stew to save his life, for free.
Third, there is no such thing as a “birth right”. They changed the inheritance laws long ago. Without telling us, mind you and just to make things worse, they proclaim ignorance is no excuse before the law. If you want something, work for it – put some sweat on your brow.
Finally, baby brothers (or sisters) might appear suddenly but they tend to stay around for a long time. Therefore, learn to read the signs during the build up, and once they are there, deal with it. Stick with love, because hate is a much bigger burden.
With hindsight, I might also add: eat more lentils, they are good for you. Lentils have the third highest level of protein of any legume or nut (after soybeans, and, dare I say it, hemp). It is inexpensive and full of essential dietary fiber, minerals, amino acids and vitamins. As a plant, it is fairly drought resistant and thus, should do well locally.
I did not grow up eating lentils, but I wish I did. It absorbs flavours very well and as such poses no limit on a cook’s imagination. Plus it is very affordable, easy to cook and could be used as a main dish or as a side dish.
I am not saying I have read the Bible cover-to-cover, but I searched long and hard for Jacob’s lentil stew recipe. Nothing … it ain’t in there! Not even a single clue.
So I turned to the Asian sub-continent for inspiration. Here lentil stew is no “mess of pottage” – something of little value (such as lentil stew) for which something of great value (birth right) is exchanged rather foolishly and carelessly.
To make the dish even more special, I recommend you make your own Garam Masala, a mix of spices that heat the body. Soak the dried lentils for a few hours or overnight, that way you reduce their cooking time quite substantively. Or else, just use already cooked, tinned lentils. If the sauce is good, no one will know. I promise.